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Finally, the Solution?

Oslo summit sets the tone for the toughest talks yet

by Douglas Davis

November 4, 1999 | 7:00 pm

Unlike previous efforts at Middle East summitry, this week's Clinton-Barak-Arafat meeting in Oslo did not aim at achieving any dramatic breakthroughs.

Instead, the three leaders had the more modest goal of creating a positive atmosphere as Israel and the Palestinian Authority embark on their most difficult negotiations to date -- the final-status talks.

Given these goals, President Clinton had little difficulty in hailing his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat.

"We have just completed a very good meeting. I feel we have revitalized the peace process," Clinton said after Tuesday's meeting, which took place amid commemorations in the Norwegian capital of the fourth anniversary of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

He offered no details about the hour-long meeting, which was intended to lay the groundwork for the final-status talks.

Those discussions -- which will tackle such seemingly intractable issues as the future of Jerusalem, Jewish settlements, Palestinian refugees and final borders -- are slated to begin next week in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

Barak and Arafat have agreed to reach a final peace agreement by September of next year. They have also set an interim Feb. 15 deadline for achieving an outline of that pact.

Clinton also said Tuesday he would hold another summit with Barak and Arafat to work on the outline, adding that they "agreed with me that we might well have a summit at the end of this process if enough progress has been made" in the weeks before the February deadline.

During the summit, Barak and Arafat agreed to meet regularly in the runup to the February deadline and to have their negotiators meet as often as three times a week. They also vowed to avoid inflammatory speeches during the talks.

As part of the U.S. effort, President Clinton plans to dispatch Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Middle East envoy Dennis Ross to the region to help bridge any differences holding up a deal.

Earlier in the day, the three leaders invoked Rabin's memory in a bid to kick-start the final-status talks.

Yet, for all three of the principals who assembled along with other leaders in Oslo -- where secret Israeli-Palestinian talks led to a historic breakthrough in 1993 -- the summit was a high-stakes diplomatic poker game.

They knew that if they were unable to create the appropriate mood music in Norway's placid setting, the task of negotiating the really tough issues back home in the pressure cooker of Middle East politics would be far more difficult.

No one was underestimating the enormity of the task ahead, the consequences of failure -- or the very real benefits that success will bring.

For the Israelis, a final settlement with the Palestinians will still leave unfinished business in Syria and Lebanon, but it will remove the major obstacle to normalizing relations with much of the Arab world and help secure the legitimacy that has eluded the Jewish state in the region.

For the Palestinians, a deal would mean not just a homeland but, for the first time in history, the very real likelihood of an independent Palestinian state, with the promise of international diplomatic recognition and aid for reconstruction and development.

For Clinton, it is his last best chance to redeem his presidency and associate his name in history with the achievement of a lasting peace in the Middle East.

A hint of Clinton's eagerness to score this achievement could be detected at the Oslo town hall before the summit, when he joined other speakers in paying tribute to Rabin's legacy.

"If Rabin were here with us today he would say, 'There is not a moment to spare. All this honoring me and these nice words, they're very nice -- but please finish the job,' " the president told the hundreds who had gathered to pay homage to Rabin.

"We have now a chance, but only a chance, to bring real and lasting peace between Israel and her neighbors," Clinton said. "If we let it slip away, all will bear the consequences."

Both Barak and Arafat joined in the drama played out before a cast of dignitaries that included Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, Rabin's widow, Leah, as well as representatives from the European Union and senior officials from several Arab states, including Jordan and Morocco.

"I vow to you, Yitzhak, a soldier who fell in the battle for peace, that we are determined to give your death meaning by following your legacy until we achieve peace," declared Barak.

"We will strive to ensure Israel's security interests and vital needs; but, at the same time, we will seek to achieve a fair settlement which reflects the needs and sensitivities of our neighbors."

For his part, Arafat gave a military salute to a large portrait of Rabin that graced the stage.

But he struck a harsher, perhaps more realistic, note when he focused on issues that will dominate the final-status negotiations.

He called on Israel to return to its pre-1967 borders and declared that peace meant resisting "violence, terror, occupation, exile and settlements."

In Gaza, Palestinian officials later defended Arafat's decision to make his demands clear at the Rabin memorial ceremony.

"We are more than a year behind an agreement which should have already been completed," Palestinian official Hisham Abdel Razek told Israel Television. "Yasser Arafat must use every forum to present the needs of the Palestinian people."

Meanwhile, Peres, speaking to Israel Radio from Oslo, came out in favor of a Palestinian state, adding that Israel needs a Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state.

Earlier in the day in Oslo, at a formal royal banquet hosted by Norway's King Harald V in Rabin's memory, Leah Rabin received a standing ovation from the 220 guests when she urged Clinton, Barak and Arafat to fulfill the dream of peace for which her husband had given his life.

"It's up to you now," she said. "Is that too much too ask?''

What is at stake in the final-status negotiations are core issues that go to the heart of a seemingly intractable dispute.

In the coming 10 months, as Israeli and Palestinian negotiators face those issues, they will know that the destinies of their peoples will be riding on the outcome of their deliberations.

They will know, too, that this is a rare opportunity to strike a deal -- if, indeed, a deal is politically possible for the two sides.

History will weigh heavy on their shoulders.

JTA correspondent Naomi Segal in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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